Academic journal article Hecate

Ways of Seeing and Speaking about Aboriginal Women: I. Black Women and Documentary Film

Academic journal article Hecate

Ways of Seeing and Speaking about Aboriginal Women: I. Black Women and Documentary Film

Article excerpt

Until fairly recently women in traditional Aboriginal society have been rendered invisible by male historians and anthropologists located within a male dominated profession constituted by a patriarchal society. As Annette Hamilton comments:

white observers have substantially misunderstood the position of Aboriginal women in traditional society because they have attempted to use a Western model of male- female relationships which is inapplicable.(1)

Such observers, assuming that `naturally' men were important and women unimportant, focussed on the elaborate ceremonial-ritual life and on the hunting and fishing activities of men. As a result they failed to see the significant role of women as food gatherers which gave them an economic independence virtually unknown to their white sisters. They also overlooked the rich social and ceremonial life of Aboriginal women. Isobel White explains:

Women have their own ceremonies, performed at life crises such as puberty, pregnancy, childbirth and sickness, and also as love magic. These have important social and psychological functions for the women, particularly because they are secret from men, and provide women with an escape from male authority.(2)

Traditional Aboriginal women regard themselves as in no way socially inferior to men. They see their roles as separate and complementary, but not subordinate, as work in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly by female anthropologists such as Berndt, White, Hamilton, Bell and Gale, has documented.

Grimshaw comments on the continuing Aboriginal efforts to combat the oppression brought about by two centuries of contact with white `civilisation' -- contact that has resulted in massacre, disease, institutionalisation, dispossession of their lands, erosion of cultural identity and an impoverished lifestyle.

A remarkable feature of this reform movement has been the extent of public activity and leadership shown by Aboriginal women, who have attained a considerable prominence in Aboriginal affairs. The work of these women has been forceful, courageous and impressive.(3)

Black female activism has been paralleled by the emergence of the feminist movement,(4) and with the development of sustained and prolific feminist film making activity. In the early seventies, feminist films concentrated mainly on `women's issues' such as sexuality, childbirth, childcare, menstruation, women and work, sexual harassment, etc., often from an exclusively white perspective. Later in the 1970s, however, a broader perspective was embraced as white feminist film makers began to explore issues of race and class, and to recognise the particular ways in which Aboriginal women have been omitted from white history and marginalised. So films such as Bread and Dripping (1981), which documented the lives of four women in the Depression years, included an Aboriginal woman's reminiscences. For Love or Money (1983) incorporated Aboriginal women's issues in its historical survey of women and work in Australia. Another film made by a male film-maker, Alec Morgan's Lousy Little Sixpence (1983), also used interviews with a number of powerful and articulate women, such as Margaret Tucker, to `authenticate' its re-construction of white/Aboriginal history between the wars.

Three documentary films in particular articulated an Aboriginal female discourse. These are Sister If You Only Knew (1975), My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979) and Two Laws (1981). All three films had significant production input by women, and all three construct an overtly political discourse in which female subjects are foregrounded. To varying degrees and, I suspect with varying levels of intentionality, all three films depart from conventional cinematic codes and documentary techniques. None of them emanated from formally constituted Women's Film Groups, and they would not be widely labelled as films which raise issues about women's liberation (probably because they are perceived by ethnocentric white commentators as being primarily about race, and only incidentally about gender, though this may also be the perspective of many Black women who would see racial oppression as more centrally significant than gender oppression). …

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